Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hitler and UK Comics

Here is an article I wrote for Crikey! magazine, before its recent demise. It's an extended and revamp version of a shorter blog post I wrote some time ago:

Fiction littered with scores of villains. They are a necessary part of what makes effective stories. Heroes need an opposing force to fight and struggle against. We see this in all types of narrative media, and comics are no exception. In comics the types of villains are varied: super-villains abound in mainstream American comics, while in British humour comics every hero has their nemesis – for the Bash Street Kids there is Teacher, and for Dennis the Menace there is Walter the Softie.

But comics also make use of real life villains in their fictional universe, and no villain occupies as significant a place in comics all across the world as Adolf Hitler. UK comics are no exception to this. While political cartoons satirising the German leader appeared in British newspapers during the war years, the earliest appearances in comics date to early issues of The Dandy and The Beano, produced during WWII. Paper was rationed and so publication moved from weekly to fortnightly, with each title being published on alternate weeks. Patriotism abounded in these publications, and every effort was made to boost public morale, and in the comics depictions of Hitler, the Nazis, and Mussolini showed them as pathetic, laughable buffoons easily dealt with by characters like Desperate Dan, and Lord Snooty in particular seemed to defeat Hitler on a regular basis. Even Korky the Cat was not averse to building a Hitler snowman on the cover of The Dandy.

Hitler even had his own strip in The Dandy. As bizarre as this seems in hindsight, 'Addie and Hermy the Nasty Nazis' was a regular feature.

Hitler and Hermann Goring were cast as idiots who spoke in a mangled, pseudo-germanic way, using “der” for “there” for instance. The Beano also joined in the fun by featuring 'Musso the Wop'. These comics did not go unnoticed by the Nazis. The Gestapo created a 'hit list' of UK residents who they would arrest once they had invaded. This list included both Dandy and Beano editors and the artist Dudley D Watkins. This alone reveals the extent to which the Nazis were troubled by UK comic versions of their leader and his colleagues.

Other media also portrayed Hitler as the embodiment of buffoonery, none more so than Charlie Chaplin, another person on the Gestapo list, for his ground-breaking satirical film The Great Dictator in which he played an obvious Hitler type called Adenoid Hynkel.

Both Chaplin and UK comics shared a burning desire to prick the pomposity and threat of the Nazis through comedy, but while The Great Dictator remains a classic, it's somehow more jarring to look back at these children's comics now, knowing what we do about the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis. Some may even view them as tasteless, but I'd say that is a mistake. Historical context is everything, and making fun of an enemy during war time is a psychologically sound way of coping with the stresses and anxieties facing the UK at the time. However, following the end of the war, and the discovery of the true levels of horror inflicted by the Nazis, it would become bad taste to depict Hitler in a comic light. In the post war years Hitler has to be portrayed as a monster because being portrayed as a buffoon would be an insult to the millions who died as a result of the Nazis actions.

Hitler as the ultimate villain becomes a key feature of scores of comics produced in Britain during the 1970s. Dramatic stories of British bravery and fighting spirit abounded in comics like Battle, Victor, and Warlord. Some war stories are now critically acclaimed, like 'Charlie's War' and 'Darkie's Mob', and they are finally being reprinted in quality editions. But some are, sadly, almost forgotten. One neglected gem, 'Day of the Eagle', by Eric Hebden, with art by Pat Wright and Barrie Mitchell, is an interesting piece of work that appeared in Battle Picture Weekly between 8th March – 24th May 1975.

Mike Nelson, codename Eagle, is assigned the task of assassinating Adolf Hitler. His ruthless drive is largely the result of the death of his father and brother and Dunkirk. Early instalments have been reprinted in the recent Best of Battle book, while the whole series can be read online at the superb Captain Hurricane’s Best of Battle website:

Hedben was a veteran of the conflict and prided himself on producing stories with accuracy, something his son Alan continues to do so in the monthly Commando books for DC Thompson.

The death of War comics in the UK was soon followed by the death of variety in British comics. Scores of titles merged and died, leaving only the Dandy, Beano, 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine as the stalwarts of UK newsagent comics. One noble experiment was Crisis, Fleetway's attempt at producing a political adult comic. In issues 46-49 it printed a colourised version of a strip that had begun in Cut, a Scottish cultural arts magazine that had caused controversy. It was called 'The New Adventures of Hitler'.

The title suggests an action-adventure series, but the series is nothing of the sort. It was written by Grant Morrison, with art by Steve Yeowell. Both had used Nazism in a previous work for 2000AD, the superhero series 'Zenith', but went for broke in their depiction of a pre-WW1 Hitler. It's a masterful, surreal strip. Based on the conjecture that Hitler visited and relatives in Liverpool during 1912-1913 it's a masterful, surreal strip which combines a search for the Holy Grail with a wardrobe that contains, at various times, echoes of future cultural touchstones: Morrissey and John Lennon perform songs within it during the story.

It proved to be a controversial title, evoking conservative outrage and liberal scepticism in equal measure: The Sun was outraged, while musician and journalist Pat Kane also made his disgust evident, leading to a feud with Morrison over the strip. It remains uncollected, and this is a shame because it is a powerful piece of fiction, one which deserves more critical acclaim than it has received. Its irony is savage: through conversing with John Bull the reader realises that Hitler would find no bigger inspiration for his quest for power than in the example provided by British Imperialism. Yet such themes hit hard and don’t play well with the UK media, and so it seems unlikely that a reprint will occur, at least in this country.

The relative death of comics in UK newsagents has led to a lack of appearances by Hitler in comics on this side of the Atlantic. Beyond a cameo appearance by his mother in From Hell, which I would class as an honorary British comic anyway due to its creators nationalities (Moore being English and Campbell an ex-pat Scotsman), little else seems to have surfaced. Hitler’s comics alter ego seemed destined to remain mouldering away in the page of forgotten British comics, but at least he is frozen for posterity in online scans and commemorative print editions. He is the ultimate comics villain and, more importantly, the ultimate villain in history. The comics help us to remember this fact, and for that alone the actual comics deserve to be remembered and, whenever possible, archived for future generations of British readers.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dan Berry and Glyndwr University

The North Wales School of Art and Design at Glyndwr University in Wrexham is the first academic institute in the UK to offer a degree course in creating comics and graphic novels. Dan Berry, Senior Lecturer in Visual Communication at Glyndwr University, has done much to develop and promote this degree, which began in the Autumn term of 2008. Berry, along with colleagues Yadzia Williams, Sue Thornton and Desdemona McCannon, provide the backbone to a thorough grounding in comics and graphic novel illustration, and the wider graphic arts. The student intake has doubled in the second year, and the future looks bright for this innovative degree. Berry is pleased with the progress made so far.

“We have a good mixture of students, with a 50-50 balance between male and female students, which is great. Students show a really broad range in their interests, but in the main males tend to like superhero stuff and manga, while girls like manga. So we look to broaden their horizons. Telling stories with words and pictures can start out by imitating. The key is for them to have wider influences by introducing them to new things on the course. I try not to enforce all my biases on them, and individual students have different needs. We are also starting to see people with more of an interest in small press comics by people like Marc Ellerby and Adam Cadwell, which is great."

Berry’s background is a rich mixture of experience. He left school at 16, and wanted to make films. He was persuaded to enrol on a BTEC in Performing Arts, which was not about film as he was led to believe, and took a job with his local council buying computers. This was followed by a stream of eclectic positions over the next five years, “working in an old people's home, on building sites, factories, Toys R Us and Currys."

The constant thread running through this period was Berry’s developing interest in drawing and computer work. “I taught myself to code using HTML, modelling programs and drawing comics. I needed time and focus, so I enrolled on a degree in multimedia design at Glyndwr University. I became interested in telling stories visually, and whether or not comics could be an interactive medium. This was an area I continued to focus on in my Masters degree studies. I became interested in how comics fit together, like little Lego Bricks. I experimented with interactively cropping and re-framing panels from Toppfer’s Obadiah Oldbuck. I also worked with Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, allowing the users to rearrange panels and inserting new dialogue into the work to tell their own stories.”

“I also did work experience in Web 3D with an architectural visualisation company, and was Lead designer for a year for a viral marketing agency, working with clients such as the British Chamber of Commerce, BBC, software companies, Carlsberg and others. Following that I did temp work for a while, and then became a lecturer at Glyndwr University.”

In terms of how students prepare best themselves for a degree course like this, Berry has some sound advice. “A one year foundation art diploma gives a really good basis for the demands of a degree course like this, and often prepares the student far better than an Art A-level, which often doesn’t prepare the student for a full-time workload. Students are often offered a place on the strength of their portfolio following a National Diploma, which is a very good introduction to the world of art." He stresses the importance of developing a portfolio, and he likes to see evidence of lots of sketchbook work and finished pieces, especially during interviews with prospective students. “I like people who are interested in storytelling. I'm interested in people who obsessively draw, and are interested in a range of areas like painting, textiles, printmaking, collage, lifedrawing.”

Berry eloquently lists the advantages of taking this degree course, for aspiring cartoonists and artists in general. “We teach key Principles and offer a variety of experience and a strong foothold in design that can be applied to graphic design, multi-media and illustration. This gives students a wider range of experience. We also offer a broader scope of what comics can be through exploring graphic design, narrative, and typesetting.”

“By giving students a broad introduction to the world of graphic design they can gain employment in a wide range of creative industries, and they can support themselves doing what they love – comics and graphic novels. A degree also helps you attain technical proficiency and the importance of meeting of deadlines. We are also in the process of validating a number of MA degrees, and there will be a ‘Graphic Novel’ route through this postgraduate programme too. We hope that this will start in September 2010.”

Former students on the course include Lauren Sharp and Alex Wilmore of Insomnia Publications in the UK, and are co-creators of Krono-City. Other guest lecturers include a mixture of comics and non-comics professionals. Comics pros have included Jim Medway, Jonathan Edwards, John Allison, Joe List and Shane Chebsey. Representatives from the business world have also lectured students, offering expertise in legal and business practices that is invaluable for students’ futures: these include the Tax Office, the Head of the Chartered Society for Designers, the AOI (Association of Illustrators), and the Arts Council.

Students are already producing and selling work at comics shows and craft fairs all over the UK. They play with the comics form, and work can be put together in various ways, from folded-out piece to beautiful handmade objects, from idiosyncratic and vibrant solo work to accomplished anthology collections like DAWNS.

Berry also produces his own webcomic, Oxford Clay, feeling that “it’s important to practice what you preach” and he attends 'Doodleplanet' once a month at Telford's Warehouse in Chester, a freeform drawing event in which there are canvases on the wall for people to draw on.

As I looked through a selection of the work coming out of this University department I was struck by how powerful and intriguing it is. Work like this is vital to the development of comics and graphic novels in the future.

Berry also has ideas to take comics out into the wider community. He has successfully undertaken a project in local secondary schools with Dr Mel Gibson, which resulted in an anthology of the children’s work being published. Berry sees the benefits such projects may have for other sectors of society

“I’d like to do a comics project in prisons, which is an idea inspired by the work of Jean Pierre Mercier and the Ministry of Justice and Education in France during the 1970s. Comics based workshops are a good tool to help people to read and to improve education can be valid.” He sees the future of comics and graphic novels in Britain as a bright one. “Things are definitely getting better in the UK. People like ‘comics maven’ Paul Gravett are actively promote growth of the medium here, while great work like Solipsistic Pop #2, which is coming out soon, shows the quality of what is out there." I’m sure that we will see much more from Dan Berry and the graduates of this course in the years to come.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Three major TV series ended within a few days of each other here in the UK: Ashes to Ashes, The Prisoner and Lost. I followed all three with intense interest and eagerly the final episodes of each. I expected mysteries to be solved and plotlines to be resolved, but only Ashes to Ashes delivered these, as far as I am concerned. The ending to The Prisoner was barely understandable, and only then if you're willing to accept vague statements and use your own guesswork as to what anything might mean. There again, I only wasted 6 hours of my life on the programme, so it's not a huge loss.

But, well, there was the ending to Lost. Time and money and effort and patience was willingly drained from it viewers over 6 damned seasons. We loved the programme and put a huge amount of emotional investment into watching it. The ending delivered some resolutions, but nowhere near enough as far I'm concerned.

I know that some people will argue that the ending is artistic, open to individual interpretation, sophisiticated blah blah blah but I feel cheated. There are mysteries that will now never be explained: the significance of Hurley's numbers, for example. They've thrown intriguing puzzles at us through our TV set and now won't help us clear up their confused mess. It's thoughless, untidy and leaves us dissatisfied.

Give me a good piece of popular fiction with a proper resolution that means something, that is clear and easy to grasp. Give me the ending to something like Watchmen (the comic, not the film for god's sake) where mystery and intrigue and suspense are finely crafted and brought to an astounding, clear resolution (despite the squid, which I really love by the way).

Endings should resolve things and leave us satisfied. What do you think?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Greenwoods Encyclopedia of Comic and Graphic Novels

I contributed four entries (Horror, Science Fiction, Seaguy, Lost Girls) and participated on the editorial board for this new publication. My copy arrived today and very nice it is too!

More info can be found here

Friday, April 23, 2010

Studies in Comics

The first issue of Studies In Comics is now out.

The whole first issue of this new journal is available as free PDFs. It includes my review of Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics: How They Work and What They Mean.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Early Alan Moore work

Here's a link to a presentation I gave online at the Met@Morph online conference in 2008, looking at Alan Moore's earliest comics work:

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Oxford Clay

Check out this great webcomic!

It's written and drawn by Dan Berry, Lecturer on the BA Illustration for Graphic Novels degree at Glyndwr University.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Recent Reads

I've been working on articles and the Swamp Thing book, which has left little time for blogging, but here are a couple of books that have grabbed my attention recently:

I love Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (and the sequels), but I'd never read any of his fiction, until now. This book reprints the black and white issues of his 1980s series Zot! This is a refeshing take on superheroes that recaptures much of the lost innocence of this post-Watchmen/Dark Knight genre. The storylines are emotionally engaging and McCloud's clear-line style is attractive. I'm hunting down the original colour issues which preceed this, and looking forward to him finishing his current work-in-progress, which is a return to fiction.

This was an unexpected pleasure. Despite being a fan of some of Millar's work (Ultimates and Red Son particularly), I've never really taken to Wolverine as a character (he's just too dark and violent for me) and so I didn't hold out much hope for this volume.

I was wrong. It's excellent. It's heavily informed by a western vibe, and the idea of a pacifist Wolverine is one that really engaged my attention through the whole book.
More posts will follow soon!